Evangelical Protestants may be too polite for their own good—or for the good of the United States. According to University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter, American evangelicals are blessed by (and suffer from) an “ethic of civility.” Hunter, whose recent study of evangelical college and seminary students is being published this month (Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation, Univ. of Chicago Press), explains that conservative Protestants have developed a cultural coping mechanism in order to survive in modern society—a commitment both to tolerating others and to being tolerable to others.
In our desire to engage modern culture rather than retreat from it, we have developed an uneasy willingness to cooperate with colleagues of distinctly different stripes—mainline Protestants, Jews, and those “secular humanists” with whom we need to live and work. This ethos of toleration is certainly laudable, even essential. Yet not all the results have been positive. On two fronts, evangelical courtesy has seriously watered down its witness.
First, Hunter reports that among the coming generation of evangelical leaders the ethic of civility has enfeebled the doctrine of salvation through faith in Christ alone. His survey contains the percentages to prove his point, but still more disturbing is the anecdotal evidence: seminarians saying they would never talk to a non-Christian about the dangers of hellfire, because such a witness could alienate the potential convert.
Second, evangelical niceness has meant evangelical ineffectiveness on the political front. While there is not the absolute cohesion on political issues among conservative Protestants that the Religious Right has claimed in the past, there is nevertheless a strong consensus on many key political issues—abortion and equal time for creation and evolution theory in public schools being two current examples. Nevertheless, come election day, the solid evangelical vote is not there. Why? The ethic of civility considers the confrontational style of the New Right “tasteless” and therefore not worth supporting. Says one (not atypical) undergraduate student: “I like [the Moral Majority’s] platform, but I don’t think they should go about pressuring people the way they do. If they want to say that they are against abortions … they should just make their opinions known.”
Since all good medicine has side effects, wise physicians prescribe it in just the right doses. Perhaps in our bid for social acceptance, we have abused the drug of civility.
As the political engines of the 1988 campaign warm up, one can only hope that conservative Protestants will not hesitate to make themselves heard on key issues of ethical importance (although, one hopes, always in good taste). And at all times, we must guard against civility breeding timidity and cancelling the compelling message of salvation through the one and only Way, Truth, and Life.
By David Neff.
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